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The recent but by no means new doping scandals in competitive cycling reveal a fundamental paradox endemic to the sport. Like running and swimming, cycling exemplifies human self-empowerment; every metre travelled is earned through individual effort. Unlike these other modes of self-propulsion, however, cycling fuses the rider's body to the unnatural skeleton of the bicycle, a technology developed collectively over the past two centuries. We push a bike, but bike technology also pushes us. For some, performance-enhancing drugs are just another techno-fix in an already gear-dependent sport.

No drug stronger than an infrequent brandy fuelled the bicycle odyssey of Ireland's Dervla Murphy, a young woman who biked alone from Dublin to Delhi in 1963. Murphy's Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle (John Murray, 1965) begins with her receiving two defining gifts for her 10th birthday: a bicycle and an atlas. She resolved that year to bike through Europe into the Middle East to India and did so, armed with a pistol, 20 years later. Great travel writing such as Murphy's always provides more than just a catalogue of pain and pleasure, although she serves up plenty of each in this alternately diaristic and meditative account of her 3,000-mile trek.

Anticipating the immobilizing heat of the Middle Eastern summer, Murphy wisely departs in January, but unluckily meets the coldest European winter in 80 years. Starting out with frostbite in immobilizing blizzards, the 32-year-old goes on to endure six months of visa delays, wolf attacks, an armed attempt to steal her bike, derision, attempted sexual assault by a police officer, ribs cracked by the butt of a rifle, being washed away in a flood, "ignominious" breaks of travel by truck, bedding with "energetic fleas," the universal expectation that she would be murdered in Afghanistan, tire- shredding stretches of road in Iran, thirst, hunger, mechanics who insist on hammering screws into her bike, temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, dehydration, sunstroke and, finally, on arrival in India, dysentery.

With those costs, what does she gain? A self-reliance that is alternately athletic, spiritual and mechanical, generosity, an appreciation for different hues of sunlight, bouts of "boundless energy," countless mountain vistas all the more amazing for reaching them on her own power, gifts (that other currency of genuine travel), affectionate curiosity, the important distinction between imposed "poverty" and enviable "simplicity," co-operation, adaptability, the "heart-stopping sight" of Afghan horses grazing on mountain pastures, exposure to remote, largely self-sufficient villages in which "nothing is false," and the start of a writing career that would see her "sanguine temperament" through 20 books, among them several more about her cycling adventures.

Murphy's Full Tilt uses the self-propulsion of cycling to create an aggregate and multi-faceted portrait of independence. For veteran English travel writer Eric Newby, nomadic bicycle touring affords not just independence but also a deepened bond with his wife, Wanda. Newby's Round Ireland in Low Gear (Collins, 1987) is an affectionate, connubial glimpse of aging novice cyclists jointly adapting to the challenges of touring after four decades of marriage. The Italian-Slovenian Wanda had helped free Newby from an Italian PoW camp during the Second World War, hiding the man who would go on to write such travel classics as A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Slowly Down the Ganges. The two make four different bicycle tours of Ireland within a year, each of which sparkles with Newby's understated humour. Here, a marriage, not just a single rider, must face a January in which "it rained every day, sometimes all day, except when it snowed," and pursuit by dogs alternately "cruel" or "wretched" or "savage and rendered even more savage by not being allowed to watch TV" with their idle country masters. Travelling off-season, the couple meet a skeletal hotel staff, its members "never quite sober," and too much mid-1980s pub food. Some farm B&Bs have "baths commodious enough to hold a baby whale," while others lack breakfast.

Undaunted by their inexperience and fuelled by Guinness, the couple graduate from an inability to change gears effectively to, by their final trip, even hauling their own tent and cooking gear. In making their own desires the priority, they meet the philosophy of touring cycling, which is mostly Zen and just a little bit anorexic. A fundamental tenet of Buddhism is the idea that desire creates suffering. When touring by bike, any desired object must be hauled up every hill and shouldered across every portage, a fact learned slowly by the bibliophilic Newby, who carries six guidebooks on their first tour. As today's defrocked racers are discovering, questioning what we want questions who we are.

According to David Herlihy's illuminating and comprehensive Bicycle: The History (Yale University Press, 2004), the greed, scandals and international competition of today's racing circuit have travelled with the bicycle since its troubled invention. Herlihy ties the development of today's "safety" bicycle to 19th-century industrialization, tracing the international genealogy of the bike from the German Karl van Drais's 1817 paradigm-shifting creation of a "feedless horse" with two in-line wheels, not four cumbrous ones. Crucially, Drais's original "walking machine" lacked a pedal drive, and 50 more years of mechanical trial and error in multiple countries were required before the Victorian "penny-farthings," with their enormous front wheels and direct pedal drives, began moving people (mostly athletic young men) around the countryside. Herlihy shows how a price-gouging patent fee later delayed all social classes and both genders from enjoying the more physically accessible, chain-driven "safety bicycles."

Representative of this sport, in which well-designed machines travel through public spaces, Herlihy's book is extremely handsome; its many images show cycling culture, with its advertising, racing and circumnavigating adventures, as a social mirror rolling through class systems, entrenched sexism, shifting economies and a proliferating media.

In ways, each of these books also shows how the self-propelled bicycle can now steer increasingly urban populations away from dangerous pollution. The adult tricycle, for example, remains a workhorse of the contemporary Indian economy. North Americans struggle with obesity, yet one-third of North American car trips are for distances of less than 10 kilometres. We can, and should, bike into a more self-reliant future.

Darryl Whetter teaches English at Université Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia. His bicycle novel The Push & the Pull will be published next May.